Tonight's performers sport impressive Beethovenian credentials. Igor Levit burst to stardom barely two years ago, with a debut recording of the late piano sonatas that drew critical awe. Bernard Haitink's Beethoven can be more divisive – some regard it too modest in scale for the composer's grand sentiments – though with four recorded cycles of the symphonies under his belt, he has unrivalled experience amongst today's crop. Joining forces with the Tonhalle Orchestra in the glowing gilt of their Zurich home, this fixture was not to be missed.

Igor Levit © Felix Broede
Igor Levit
© Felix Broede
That was partly for the curious jarring sensation provoked by a glimpse of this playbill. Levit and Haitink are not obvious bedfellows: the former is a 28-year-old firebrand, a bundle of creative energy, a serial tweeter; the latter a disarmingly modest 86-year-old with little to prove, albeit with few signs of winding down anytime soon. Levit's interpretations are known for their mining exploration. Haitink's let the music speak for itself.

Yet tonight's performance of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto showed that this relationship works. Haitink looked after the broad musical arch, whilst chiselling detail with little gestures that were hardly perceptible behind the piano's hulk. Levit peered into the orchestra's depths during rests, searching for cues and snapping them up in his ensuing passages. Sensitivity all round made everything tick, yet there was no questioning who wore the trousers in this relationship. A more egotistical conductor might have pushed the equilibrium out of joint; here, the absence of power struggles let cohesion prevail. At one point in the first movement's exposition, Levit reprised the baton with a gliding upwards scale, before applying the brakes for a filigree bend and taking everyone else with him.

Levit's playing was a marvel. He dispatched the twists and turns with mesmerising control, and a sense of spontaneity sustained a spirit of invention (legend has it that Beethoven improvised most of the piano part at the work's première). The cadenza grew from obsidian black to a crystalline shimmer, whilst the second movement's solo flute and bassoon were encased in his enveloping warmth. The pianist clearly has a sense of humour too. A Beethoven sonata would have been the obvious encore. Instead, a rendition of Shostakovich's Polka from The Golden Age (here, laden with gags) echoed the Piano Sonata's zany third movement, and prefigured the dissonances and fortissimo outbursts of the Third Symphony to come.

After the interval, the "Eroica" Symphony hatched its own surprises. We think that we know Haitink's style for Beethoven, and, in a sense, we do. This was a largely characteristic reading from the conductor, invested with sculpted phrasing and a keen sense of momentum that springs from a lucid structure. Orchestral balance was sublime, which Haitink massaged between crumpled fingers. Is Haitink's approach too hands off for the Eroica's revolutionary struggles? When there is such disarming grace and swoon amongst the first movement's thrashings, or such urbane finesse for the third movement's regal horn trio, it is hard to protest.

Not that we lacked moments of grit. These were rather unexpected, and powerful enough to quieten even Haitink's most steadfast detractors. Some lament his apparent glossing over the earthquake clashes in the first movement's development section (taken slightly steadier tonight than the conductor's usual brisk pace). Here, they built in smarting thrusts, coiling to a well-reined tempo and battened out by Haitink's sheathed paws. The Marcia funebre started out as a deathly dirge, until an inferno was summoned in a scintillating rendition of that movement's fugue.

The Tonhalle is Zurich's place of musical worship, where the audience resembles a Lutheran congregation sitting aloft in flanking galleries. More ornate than a Lutheran church, gilt-encased Trompe-l'œil homages the likes of Wagner, Bach and Mozart, with Beethoven staring imperiously from their midst. The was an absorbed performance that let the composer's voice resound more strongly than those of the performers. The result was an atmosphere of apostolic devotion.